The Unsung Heroes Project


So many young people today are without real heroes. Their knowledge of individuals who have made a difference in the world usually extends only as far as celebrities and sports stars, perhaps to someone in politics. Worthy as some of these people may be, students are generally unaware of the range of actions that can be considered heroic and, even more importantly, of the people in their own community who have made a difference by standing up for, rescuing, or serving another person, cause, idea, or the community itself.

The last three years that I was in the classroom, my 9th grade Honors English students and I undertook a project that expanded their understanding of what it means to be a hero.  This was the Unsung Hero Project, inspired and supported by the Lowell Milken Center in Fort Scott, Kansas. I’ve blogged about this project before (Great Expectations: The Unsung Hero Project and Unsung Heroes, Reprise), but I’ve never outlined exactly what my students did. Recently I was asked to do that, so I’m sharing my description here along with some pictures of students at work on the project.

This classroom undertaking is an example of project-based learning. Through their work on this project, students developed skills in research, collaboration, writing, and the use of technology.  And, as important (if not more so) than anything else they learned, they were inspired by real live heroes in our own community.

Semester One

Students received intensive writing instruction the first semester, especially regarding formal writing conventions and organization of ideas. I spent time on sentence combining techniques (compound, complex, compound-complex sentences, introductory modifiers, appositives) before as well as during the time the students wrote their essays (February and March), and I hit topics such as pronoun antecedents pretty hard. Other grammatical topics I covered on an “as needed” basis. I also “unpacked” the skills required for a research paper, teaching basic bibliography skills, outlining, and internet search techniques in the first semester in preparation for the more complex research the students conducted during the second.

Collaboration is a vital component of this project, so I employed a variety of strategies for developing collaborative skills from the very beginning of the year. My goal was for students to be comfortable working together so that when they began the Unsung Heroes project in the second semester, they could work together efficiently, productively, and equitably.

The first step in the project itself was to define, through class discussion, what exactly we meant by the word “hero.”  Here’s what the students came up with one year: A hero is a person who, with no expectation or recognition or reward, has made a difference by standing up for, rescuing, or serving another person, cause, idea, or the community itself.  Definition Lessons 035

We had a few models, too: Atticus Finch served as the fictional model for a community hero (we read To Kill a Mockingbird in the fall) and the non-fiction model was Irena Sendler. The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler is available on DVD from Hallmark; the book Life in a Jar is available through Amazon. Other models were individuals profiled in the Christian Science Monitor’s series “People Making a Difference” (available online at the Monitor website). We read a number of these essays and practiced defining a hero by breaking down the stories and aligning them with the students’ definition.

Semester Two

Students formed groups of three, self-selecting their partners, and established an account on, an online tool for writing collaboratively, simultaneously, in real time (a new technology tool eight years ago when I first began this work!).

Then students selected a hero/heroine from a list I provided for them of people in our community who had been in some way heroic. Some of the individuals came to my/our attention because they had received a very small local award for their efforts. Some were suggested by friends in the community, the faculty at my school, and (by the second and third year) various individuals who had read the first volumes of the book. Once the students selected a cause/person, I contacted that individual, soliciting their involvement. No one ever turned us down, by the way, and I would have been surprised if they had.

The next step was the research paper, probably the most complex instructional piece. The students worked collaboratively to research the cause their hero had championed. Thus, when they met the hero and interviewed him/her, they were already “experts” on the topic. The hero didn’t have to start from scratch to educate the students. The research paper included an outline, an annotated bibliography, internal documentation, and a Works Cited page in MLA format.

Most students established email contact with their hero right away and were able to ask him/her for advice and recommendations for resources as they researched the topic. The heroes were usually glad to steer the students to appropriate resources and helped them narrow their topic appropriately.

Unsung Heroes II 024Once the research paper was underway, the students set up an interview with their hero. We tried to conduct all the interviews on the same day in the school library, but of course, not everyone was available on the day we selected, and in some cases, it was inconvenient for the hero to come to school at all. I sometimes drove groups of students to on-site locations and arranged for their parents to pick them up. To be honest, when the hero was associated with a facility—such as the Boys and Girls Club and a second-hand store for impoverished families—it is helpful for the students to see the facility.

Students set up the interview by phone or by email. Although I coached them in the art of interviewing, I stayed out of the interviews myself (aside from taking photographs). Afterward, the students typed up their notes in narrative form or in Question/Answer format—and then they started in on the essay. Their essays went through several revisions. Early versions were read by their peers and by me, and these revisions dealt with structure, the balance between narration and  quoted material, and the weaving of information from their research with what they had learned from their hero. Line editing came last, and both the students and I did this at various times.

P1010472One of my concerns as a teacher of writing was that “voice” would be lost in a collaborative project, and to a certain extent, it was. However, what usually happened is that one of the students emerged as the primary writer, so meshing styles and voices wasn’t as severe a problem as I had originally anticipated. They also each wrote a reflection. I was light-handed with these—I didn’t want to extinguish their individual voices—and by this time, the students were expert at line editing. People who have read the book who are not from this community and don’t know the heroes have told me that the reflections are the most interesting part of each book. That doesn’t surprise me—there students wrote from their hearts.

Students submitted their work to me as a Word document, and I did take over as the master technician on setting up the pages. Eventually, the document turned into a pdf file. The students selected the font and the layout, and they designed the front and back covers as well.

The books could have been published using an online company, but the submission deadlines for these companies did not work with the school calendar very well, so I elected to work with a local printing service. Frankly, I am glad I did. We were able to receive a galley, make final corrections, and still meet our publication deadline. Besides, the printer I worked with had a lot of good advice for us and accommodated our schedule well. He even attended our celebration at the end because he had had a hand in this production, too.

Unsung Heroes in Our Community was developed with the support of the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes (LMC) in Fort Scott, Kansas, whose mission is to “galvanize a movement to teach respect and understanding among all people regardless of race, religion or creed.” The spirit of the Center is embodied in the Hebrew expression, tikkun olam, which means “to repair the world.” The LMC accomplishes its mission of teaching respect and understanding by supporting education projects that feature Unsung Heroes—people who, like Irena Sendler, have acted to repair the world. The project was funded by grants from the Kiwanis Foundation and the Public Schools Foundation of Tippecanoe County.

Unsung Heroes in Our Community was an extensive project, and one that made me—still makes me—very proud. At the end of each year, we held a celebration to which all the heroes were invited as well as the principal and the school district administrators, the students’ parents, the press, and our donors. DSC_0002

At the celebration, the students introduced their heroes, a few students spoke to the audience about the process and what they had learned, and often the heroes made little speeches themselves. All this was followed by a mass book signing. The heroes were even more enthusiastic than the students about collecting signatures! DSC_0113

The book is now in our local public libraries, our local historical society, and in the collection at the Indiana State Historical Society in Indianapolis. Last year, two students were cited in the newspaper by our local historian for information they discovered about the Underground Railroad in our town. Volume I of Unsung Heroes in Our Community was enthusiastically reviewed on the radio last summer  and the book was also featured on local television. Some of our heroes, in fact, later became subjects for a local TV program, “Heroes Among Us.” DSC_0140

This project is well worth the time, energy, and effort it takes to orchestrate. Project-based learning is meaningful to students because it is “real” (as one of the students told me). At the same time, a project like this directly addresses state academic standards and district curriculum expectations. For the teacher, bringing a project such as this to fruition necessitates a thorough understanding of the standards and curriculum, of course, but beyond that, it is a matter of organization and planning and, above all, faith in the students. Their gain in research and composition skills, in comfort with technology, and in the ability to work collaboratively is extraordinary.

DSC_0010The book made an impact on the students beyond the skills they gained and the recognition they garnered. Their definition of a hero expanded from the vision of a super-powered individual in a cape and Spandex to someone who serves others. My students were inspired by the person whose life and work they researched. Someday, when they themselves confront an injustice, meet with a challenge, or perceive a community need (as they undoubtedly will), I am confident that they will recall the courage, selflessness, and determination of these local heroes to “repair the world.” I believe that from these individuals’ examples, my students will draw the strength to act heroically themselves.

Unsung Heroes, Reprise

Last week I received an unexpected email from the director of the West Lafayette Public Library, Nick Schenkel.  In a book talk on our local NPR station, he had reviewed the collection of essays my 9th grade Honors English class had written and published last spring; he was writing to invite me to listen. Unsung Heroes in Our Community, Volume III was the culmination of a year of carefully planned instruction on my part and intense research, personal interviews, and many, many revisions on the part of the students.  In late May, we celebrated the publication of the book with a festive reception for the heroes in our high school media center.

When you write anything, you wonder if it will find an audience and what that audience will think. Accordingly, I went right to the WBAA website to find and listen to the review. As my browser searched out the recording, I speculated about the content of the 10-minute spot. What would be the focus? Would it be on the work of the heroes or the work of the students?  Which of the stories would Nick retell? Who among my students would be featured? What would the overall appraisal be?

I listened intently.

First, I was gratified that each hero was mentioned—certainly, a few were highlighted—but every person was represented. The students had worked in groups of three to research their topic and interview the hero they were honoring; thus, all of them were recognized for their work. Then I was excited: I wanted to listen to the review again, this time with my students—now 10th graders—and watch their reaction to Nick’s comments and his praise (Yes!)  for their work. Their current teacher graciously let me steal some of her time with them to do so. Sitting in a classroom again with these remarkable kids and listening to what the librarian said took us all right back to last spring when we had worked together so intensely for so long.

Nick opens his review by explaining that Unsung Heroes “spotlights local residents with big hearts and big imaginations.”  The students nodded, stole looks at one another, smiled at me. The librarian goes on to say that each essay exemplifies “Hoosier can-do”—and I thought about how the students’ work itself illustrates the same thing. When we first began the project, the very idea of writing a book had seemed preposterous to them—but the students had persevered, completed the task, and now were hearing genuine, unsolicited praise for a book that Nick calls an “uplift for our spirits.” Like a detective, Nick had read the text, discerned the evolution of the final product, and in his review, he illuminates not only the content of Unsung Heroes, but the process by which it was accomplished.

In the published book, each essay is followed by the students’ personal reflections on the process.  In her reflection, Alesia repeats the definition of a hero that the class had generated: Motivated by his or her values, beliefs, or compassion for others, a hero is a person who, with no expectation of recognition or reward, when confronted by a disaster, an injustice, or a need, inspires and helps others—at the risk of losing something valuable.  Nick zeroes in on that definition in his review, pronouncing it “as good as any I have read.”  We basked in the glow of those seven words, knowing that developing that definition had been our very first step. It had taken the students two instructional days to list all the attributes of a hero they could think of and then capture the essence of those qualities in short, precise phrases. We worked at the ENO board to put all of their ideas into one (long) grammatical sentence—not an easy feat.  Can you imagine having debates about prepositional phrases and commas  and dashes with 9th graders? Well, we had them. Two days—100 minutes—to write a definition might seem extravagant, but 28 kids had to agree on every word. Just as importantly, having a clear definition was critical to the success of the project. It guided the students in selecting the heroes in the first place and later on in composing the text.

Nick mentioned the research the students did—a long and arduous process in which they investigated their hero’s cause and then wrote a traditional term paper complete with an annotated bibliography and a works cited page. Then came the interviews—when the students met their heroes face-to-face—and the follow-up: emails, phone calls, and second and third meetings in some cases. And then the drafts of the essays—and the seemingly endless revisions.

Oh yes. The revisions. I read and responded to the students’ first efforts, reading for structure and coherence. Then I read again—still for structure and coherence. The students read each other’s work—for clarity and  detail. Revisions followed and the students read again—their own and each other’s essays. Sentence structure, word choice, transitions: they checked on these.  Finally, finally, there was the line editing—the grammar that had to be checked, the questions about punctuation that had to answered, the intricacies of prepositional phrases and adjective clause placements that had to be determined. Revision went on—it seemed to them—forever.

One transition was particularly pesky. The students who were writing an essay about the chairperson of our local community health clinic needed to profile the  clinic’s founder, a different person, first, and then transition into the discussion of the chairperson’s work. The first time I listened to Nick’s review, I nearly jumped out of my seat at his mention of that particular segue. He says it was effected “effortlessly.”  When the kids heard that, they grinned broadly.  The fact is, I must have sent that piece back half a dozen times because the transition was choppy; ultimately, the students got it right. That it seemed so smooth to Nick made all the red ink, the returns, the frustration, and the perseverance so worth it. The power of revision: illustrated for us right there on the radio. Could a teacher ask for more?

At one point Nick explains to the radio audience that these essays were written by teams of students “in the best tradition of committee writing.”  The team approach had posed a design problem for me as a teacher. Voice is so important in writing, and I had been afraid that voice would be lost if the students worked collaboratively. Indeed, as McKaylee wrote later, in her reflection on the process, “One of the most challenging aspects of the Unsung Heroes project was to allow the paper to smoothly flow, camouflaging the fact that it was written by three authors instead of one.”  When I hit upon the idea of including each student’s personal reflection in the book, the problem of voice was resolved—and the book is the better for the reflections. Though their heroes have inspired them and made permanent imprints on their lives, in the end, Nick is right:  The reflections are often the most “compelling and thought-filled” pieces in the book.  When he read a portion of  Kory’s reflection, captured a line that Sherrie wrote, repeated Eric’s lovely tribute to the special education teacher in our own building, these three blushed, slid down in their seats, felt the hot pride of authorship that comes when a story has hit home.

“What do you think?” I asked at the end of the broadcast. “How does it feel to listen to the review?”

“It gives me goose bumps,” said Megan, who was sitting next to me. This wasn’t hyperbole. There were little bumps all over her arms.

It gave me goose bumps, too.

Thank you, Nick. Thank you for affirming me as a teacher, my students as writers, and the heroes’ stories as inspiration for us all.

Last Lesson: Love Lesson

The climax came on Thursday with the Unsung Heroes celebration in our school library. A packed room, our heroes all there, each of them introduced by the students, who were keyed up and jittery, naturally nervous to speak in public. Sheet cakes, flowers, and picture boards decorated the room. Reporters stood at attention and interviewed the students after the program; cameras followed their every move. An audience of parents and grandparents, friends, school administrators, and at least 50 other students (most of whom had completed the Unsung Hero project themselves, last year and the year before) congratulated them. Lots of attention. Lots of emotion.

It would be natural for Friday to be falling action, for the students to feel the let-down that comes when something they’ve worked on for so long has come to an end. For me, too, Friday was likely to be falling action. But I have learned that the best way to handle emotional turbulence is to hold steady—in this case, to stay focused on a goal.

Of course we debriefed for a few minutes when the 9th graders came to class, but it wasn’t long before their comments became repetitive. I brought them back to Romeo and Juliet, which we had been reading before we took time out to plan for the party. Specifically, we came back to the structure of Shakespeare’s sonnets. My purpose statement—the learning objective—was on the whiteboard: Identify these terms (rhyme scheme, quatrain, heroic couplet, turn, meter, scan, iambic pentameter) and explain the structure of a Shakespearean sonnet.

The students turned their attention from chatter to task.

So let’s review first, I said. What’s a sonnet?

The predictable, imprecise answer: A 14-line poem about love.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

I gave pairs of students 14 strips of paper—Sonnet 18, cut apart and jumbled up. Their task was to reconstruct the sonnet according to the rhyme scheme: abab cdcd efef gg. Of course, they already knew what quatrains and couplets are, and by discovering the sonnets embedded in Romeo and Juliet, they’d already learned Shakespeare’s typical rhyme scheme. So finding the rhymes was easy. But then they were stuck. The three quatrains were out of order. At that point, I intervened.

There’s an internal structure, too, I said, a specific logic to the sonnet. A sonnet doesn’t sprawl, loose to the page. It’s very precisely organized. Shakespeare’s sonnets work like this: Condition stated (the first quatrain); Condition Expanded (the second); Reversal, signaled by the Turn (the third); Summation. Find the turn, I directed—the word that signals a shift in thought. Ah: But. Now paraphrase the lines, summarize the quatrains. Then you’ll be able to put them in order.

You are more beautiful—and your loveliness more permanent—than a summer day, and summer itself does not last long.
As the beauty of a summer day can be diminished by heat or clouds, so the beauty in everything eventually fades.
But, not you. Your beauty will not be lost nor will you die because my poetry will capture you for eternity.
As long as life persists and people read this poem, you will be immortal.

You’ve got it! But that’s not all. There are 14 lines—now count the syllables in each line. Ten. Yes, ten in every line–arranged in iambic pentameter.

What’s that?

The ENO board—the interactive whiteboard—made it easy to mark the syllables, to show them what meter is, what scansion means: unaccented, accented; unaccented accented: 5 times per line. Now read it aloud, exaggerating the accented syllables. (I modeled—imagine that!—and they joined in.)

It’s rap!

Yes! Same rhythm, but now read it the way that Shakespeare would. Draw out some syllables, elevate the pitch on others, emphasize some words, minimize others: Sheer poetry.

So what’s a Shakespearean sonnet? A 14-line poem about love, written in iambic pentameter with an abab cdcd efef gg rhyme scheme, composed of three quatrains and a couplet, arranged to reveal a progression of thought in which the poet states a condition, expands upon it, turns (or reverses) the thought in line 9, and sums up the idea in a concluding heroic couplet.

And then, as if on cue, the bell rang.

We’ll have falling action all next week, too, as we do what normally happens in the denouement. We’ll tie up loose ends and review for final exams. Students will wangle for points, and some will panic, a bit too late to do much good. But this was the last instructional day, my last day to introduce new material and structure a lesson to learn it. That the topic today was the sonnet is an irony that hasn’t escaped me—for teaching has been what I have loved to do since I was a child playing school. I, as much as the kids, could have been overwhelmed by emotion today, but holding steady, keeping myself focused on the objective—keeping the kids focused on a purpose—produced in the end what I wanted—what I needed—for an ending: a lesson that was a love poem all by itself.

Great Expectations: The Unsung Hero Project

I wish I’d had a tape recorder last Friday. My students were huddled in their writing groups looking at feedback from their peers—penciled remarks and notations from the other students in the class—on fourth and fifth drafts of essays each group had written. They’d traded their essays with each other, passing them around the room round robin style. In just two weeks, their work goes to press.

The manuscripts the students were looking at so intently this past Friday are the culmination of three intense months of research, interviews, and writing that they have done about individuals in our community who have met their definition of a hero. The students’ essays will be published in a book that we hope will be acquisitioned (as the previous two volumes have been) by the public libraries in our town and by the historical societies here and in our state capitol, Indianapolis.

The writing these students have been doing is for a real audience, a real purpose—and the impact of authenticity on their work has been nothing short of phenomenal. Their growth as writers has been off the charts.

Here are the sorts of things they were saying as they bent over their manuscripts, excitedly deciphering their friends’ comments and evaluating the merits of the various proofreading notations:

• They say we need to move this phrase so what it modifies is clear. They’re right.
• They think this should be a comma, but I don’t. I think it should be a semi-colon.
• Look! This is the subordinate clause rule Mrs. Powley just taught us!
• I don’t understand this comment. Emily! This is your handwriting. What do you mean here?
• Three people said “proper” water doesn’t sound right. What word should we use? We mean you can’t drink the water. Is there a word for that?
• What do we do to make this fragment into a sentence? Oh look! It connects to the noun at the end of the sentence before it. Oh! It’s an adjective clause!
• Look at this. We’ve started three paragraphs in a row the same way. We need to switch it up.

Ninth graders. Urgently resolving their own grammatical errors, punctuation mistakes, stylistic quandaries, and word choice confusions. How did this come about?

The story starts several years ago, in 2009, when I was a Fellow at the Lowell Milken Center in Ft. Scott, Kansas. I spent time there that summer planning the project that my 9th grade students have worked on now for three successive years: Unsung Heroes in Our Community. The mission of the Lowell Milken Center is to promote, through education, respect and understanding for all people. The spirit of the Center is embodied in the Hebrew expression tikkun olam, which means “to repair the world.” To accomplish its mission, the Center supports project-based learning endeavors that feature unsung heroes—people who have acted to repair the world.

The idea that drove the design of Unsung Heroes in Our Community is a reality that has bothered me for a long time: Too many young people today are without positive role models. They are without real heroes. Their knowledge of individuals in the world who have made a difference extends to celebrities and sports stars, occasionally to someone in politics. Worthy as some of these people may be, students are generally unaware of the range of actions that can be considered heroic and even more importantly, of the people in their own community who have gone out of their way to help others.

This year’s collection of student essays is the third one that profiles people in our town who have stepped forward to “repair the world.” My hope when I began this project three years ago was that these people would inspire my students, and my hopes have been fulfilled. Indeed, the “heroes” have become role models and mentors for them.

Here are a few of the comments the student made in their reflections on this project:

• We learned so much about suffering going on in the world—and not very far from us, either. [These students were writing about a couple who volunteer on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.] But we also learned that there are those that care and are willing to step up to the plate and do something about it— and they live right in our own community.

• This project has inspired me to become involved in community affairs and volunteer for organizations such as Riggs [a community health care center].

• Another thing I have learned through this project is the true definition of a hero. A hero is not just someone wearing spandex and flying high in the air with his cape trailing behind him, but someone who has a passion to help others and makes a difference without expecting any reward.

• In getting to know my hero, I have learned that, no matter what struggles life may give me, I should keep moving forward and never look at the challenges as some type of disability or setback but as a chance to prove myself and my own strength.

• With each new revision, I was inspired to make something truly great. In a sense, to make something that would do justice to what Mrs. Yates [the writer’s hero] does. I wanted to make her proud.

So, on Friday, listening to my students’ conversations, answering their questions, cheering when they figured out how to solve a writing problem by themselves, I was as happy as I’ve ever been as a teacher. My students have internalized the formal English lessons they’ve learned, they’ve successfully accomplished an enormous and meaningful task, and each of them feels the pride of achievement. They’ve learned immeasurable amounts about their community and the amazing people who live here—people who, not surprisingly, went out of their way to help 9th graders with a school project.

Most importantly, from my point of view, my students now know real heroes. In the future, when these 9th graders confront an injustice, meet with a challenge, or perceive a community need (as they undoubtedly will), I don’t just hope they will recall the courage, selflessness, and determination of their “heroes” and model their responses after them, I believe they will.

And finally, because the work they did—the research, the writing, the revision—was all for an authentic purpose, intended for a public audience, they took their writing task seriously. They really cared about the outcome: about telling their heroes’ stories accurately and well, about crafting sentences and paragraphs that are clear, coherent, correct, and even eloquent.

What could make an English teacher happier?